January 19, 2008

Ad or editorial content – Who can tell?

Reading through the latest edition of Glamour, a popular magazine among Britain’s female population, I could not help but ask myself the following question:
Who is behind this magazine? Professional journalists or true marketing geniuses?
Despite the huge amount of paid-for ads, hidden (and not-so-well-hidden) advertising is spread all over the magazine – over 66 out of 216 pages to be precise.
‘Dressed’ as journalistic content, these hidden ads can be found all over the magazine: in photo series about fashion trends, tips about the right make-up, book reviews, travel or carrier tips.

It is not exactly big news that magazines and especially those for women are full of advertisements, but the way sales messages are brought to the reader and the proportion they have taken on have definitely changed. According to Michael A. Clinton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Hearst Magazines „they have become much more complex and sophisticated.“

One form of advertising that has become particularly popular is the so-called advertorial, where advertisers simulate editorial content to promote their products by using, for example, the magazine’s writing style or the same layout.

That this kind of advertising is ethically dodgy – for both sides: the advertisers and the publishers allowing the advertisers to simulate their product – may not be that obvious, but in my opinion this kind of advertising leads to one of the most important ethical questions for future discussions: how far should publishers and advertisers be allowed to go in fooling their audience?

May be this statement that I found on the website of Advertorial.org, an organization that designs advertorials, makes the ethical dilemma clearer:
“It is widely known that people give a lot more credibility to good editorial content than to paid advertisements. After all, anyone can claim that their own product is the best. But editorial content suggests that someone else has endorsed your product or service.”

It suggests that someone else (the journalist) endorsed the product or service!
The advertisers use the credibility that the magazine has earned over the past to trick readers and dispose their products.

The result of the increasing amount of advertorials and things alike is that the line between editorial content and advertisement (almost) disappears, which can lead to the loss of a magazine’s credibility. This is for example why 8 out 10 Americans questioned in a RTNDF study believe “that advertisers have an undue influence over editorial content”.

Losing credibility and their readers’ trust is definitely not something any publisher would aim for, but it seems that the competition for advertisers, or let’s say their money, does not leave them with too many choices. Pushed by marketers and advertisers, publishers even put their own journalists on the job to create advertorials.

According to David Carr, writer for The New York Times, this pressure also works the other way round as publishers use hidden ads to win advertisers for their magazines:

“Behind the four walls of many publishers, especially in the women's magazine category, there are frequent trades of editorial coverage for advertising, but it is nothing explicit - beauty and fashion producers who do not advertise will soon notice that their products are almost never featured.”

Although it is considered unethical according to the American Society of Magazine Editors as well as to the German Press Complaints Commission to mislead the audience about the intentions behind a publication, to mix editorial content with advertisements or to assign journalists to create advertorials, publishers often decide to ignore these guidelines and instead go for the money.

This tactic may surely works for the moment, but I believe that in the end it will bite especially the publishers in their behind. Because reading an article for 15 minutes and then having to discover that has been nothing else than an ad, is not exactly what readers wish for – as a result they will probably do exactly what advertisers did already years ago: turn their back on magazines that are overloaded with ads and look for magazines that are credible.

Read David Carr’s full article about ads and magazines:
The Media Business: Advertising; To Sell the Ads, Eager Magazines Write the Copy

Another blogs on this subject: New Media Musings

January 10, 2008

Crossing the line just because you can?

Searching through the online version of The Sun for the latest celebrity gossip, a two-month-old article caught my attention. Its’ headline said: “German mag’s sick Maddie joke.”

The article, which The Sun’s headline is referring to, which was actually more like a collage, had been designed as an ad showing pictures of Maddie on different products like Kinder chocolate or domestic cleaner. The headline of the collage says “Find Maddie” and the subtitle promises that whoever finds a product with Maddie’s face on it gets the product half price.

The Sun called this collage, which was printed in the German magazine Titanic, a “sick spoof” and an “advert for bad taste”. But is it really that bad?

To be honest, I was quite shocked, when I first saw the collage, thinking how extremely inappropriate it was to make fun of this girl and the tragic story of her missing. But when I looked at the collage and the sarcastic tone of its’ text passages again, I understood that the authors did not make fun of Maddie, but of the huge media circus that had been created over the past months since her missing.

Sarcasm or not, the collage evoked some serious outrage among British newspapers and, of course, Maddie’s parents. But defending the right of media freedom and freedom of expression, Titanic’s editor Oliver Nagel stood behind this article - despite the bad reactions it had provoked: “We don't go round apologizing for the articles we are printing.“

So, who is right? What is more important? A code of ethics, which states that in “cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively“? Or journalists and editors defending press freedom?

Writing down those questions, I cannot help but think back to September 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of Muhammad and made the debate about what is more important - press freedom or the respect for different religious views - a political issue.

The newspaper had published caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammad, which, among others, show him wearing a bomb instead of his turban. The Muslim community felt insulted by this pictures – not only by their sarcastic touch, but also because it is not allowed by Muslim law to portray the prophet.

When Western newspapers reprinted the caricatures to demonstrate that hey would not tolerate censorship – even of articles or pictures offending religious feelings – and Muslims went out on the streets and burning American, Danish or German flags, the ‘debate’ got out of control and in the end took the lives of 144 people.

What was supposed to be a joke had became a worldwide debate about different believes and about what is legal and what is ethical:
Although it was technically not illegal to print the caricatures because the German as well as the American constitution protect the right for freedom of expression and for press freedom, it was not ethical to print and reprint the pictures according to the German press code of ethics.
It states that it is unethical to disrespect people’s dignity with pictures or words and to hurt religious or political feelings.

So, what is it then in the end that a journalist should follow? Should one defend his rights - or basic rights, to be more precisely, which generations of journalists and freethinkers before us had to fight and sometimes die for? Or should we respect others people’s feelings and believes, although we don’t share them? Should the German journalists apologize to Maddie’s parents like the Danish newspaper apologized to the Muslim community?

In the end, the best way to go as a journalist is probably to make a decision that allows one to sleep at night without having a bad conscious.
And although, I think it is important to push the limits to see how far one can go, I don’t think you should publish anything just because the law says you can.

January 06, 2008

The end of the story justifies the means?

“Britney Out Of Hospital” one of the Mirror’s headlines reads today. The pictures enclosed show singer Britney Spears tied down to a stretcher as paramedics take her in an ambulance to Sinai Hospital in L.A after a mental breakdown on Friday.
For those not satisfied with pictures of a tied down Britney, BBC News offers a video of the incident, showing how paramedics take the confused singer away and how a crowd of paparazzi storms the ambulance she’s in.

Seeing those pictures made me wonder what journalists are willing to do for an exclusive or rather how they gather their material and information. Despite the fact that those paparazzi clearly have no respect for Britney’s privacy (which is probably part of the job description), they don’t mind to hinder paramedics from doing their job or filming into a closed ambulance.

When hunting for an exclusive or revealing political racketeering, are journalists allowed to do anything? Is going undercover, using hidden cameras or intercepting telephone calls to investigate a story ethical? Does the end of the story justify the means?

According to the Press Complaints Commission the answer to this question is yes ... and no!
Paragraph ten of the Commission’s code of practice, titled clandestine device and subterfuge, states that

“The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices. […] Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

So, although using clandestine devices or engaging in subterfuge is generally considered unethical, the end of the story does justify unethical methods of news gathering.

Being in line with the PCC, the BBC states in its’ guidelines that

Secret recording must be justified by a clear public interest. It is a valuable tool for the BBC because it enables the capture of evidence or behaviour that our audiences would otherwise not see or hear. [...] Investigations are an important way of uncovering matters of significant public interest. In the course of a BBC investigation the use of secret recording must be kept under constant review.“

The magic key in those statements and justification for unethical methods of news gathering, seems to be “” which basically means that almost anything is allowed as long as it is important for the public to know about the story.

Using the argument of “the public interest”, the BBC in 2003 send one of its’ reporters undercover to investigate claims of institutional racism in the police force. The reporter had been trained by Greater Manchester Police and started working there as a probationary constable. When his subterfuge leaked out, the reporter was taken to jail but was later released on bail.
Condemning this method of journalistic research, a spokesperson of Greater Manchester Police said that by condoning this act of unethical journalism, the media organisation [BBC] might well have breached people's human rights.

A spokeswoman for the BBC on the other justified their methods by saying that the BBC had spent several months investigating allegations of institutional racism within the Greater Manchester Police - they believed this to be a matter of significant public interest.

But does the public interest really justify using unethical methods to investigate a story? To show that there’s no definite answer to this question – at least as far as I am concerned – I picked two examples – one with a happy ending and one that went down in German history as a journalistic scandal:

In early 2007, journalist Fabrizio Gatti, who writes for the Italian newspaper L’Espresso, revealed his shocking findings about the hygienic deficits at Italy’s biggest hospital Umberto l hospital in Rome.
Gatti pretended for a month to work at the hospital as a cleaner. He used hidden cameras, photographed dirty corridors and staff smoking at the children’s intensive care unit and hazardous refuse that had been abandoned inside the hospital.
Immediately after his shocking report, the police’s health and hygiene unit Nas arrived at the hospital to proof the accusations and Health Minister Livia Turo announced an investigation of hygiene standards at all Italian hospitals.

Although I believe that deluding others about one’s true identity and intentions is unethical, I think that Fabrizio Gatti’s going undercover was justified. First of all his report brought leading politicians to take care about prevailing deficits at Italian hospitals – something many Italians will benefit from (this is what I understand as really being in “the public interest”).
And secondly, Gatti did not harm anybody (I can’t image there has been much interaction with patients as he was a cleaner) or put someone at danger. This is where Gatti’s report differs from the undercover investigations made by the BBC.
Although the subject of investigation, institutional racism within the Greater Manchester Police, is definitely of public interest, pretending to work for the police is extremely unethical, so I believe. The police is an institution that is supposed to help and protect people and that is based on trust – trust that people will find help and protection when they need it. By sending a reporter to Manchester Police to pretend to be someone he is not, the BBC accepted that people were deluded and their trust was being undermined. Instead of making the public benefit from their investigation, the BBC betrayed their trust.

Another case that made bad headlines in this matter is the one of journalist Sebastian Knauer, who used to write for the German magazine Stern, and his colleague Hanns-Jörg Anders, a photographer:
On October 11th, 1987, both journalists broke into the hotel room of Uwe Barschel, Prime Minister of a German federal state. The journalists had been investigating a political affaire involving Barschel and broke into his hotel room for more – exclusive – information.
After they had entered the room, they found the minister in the bathroom. He was dead and lying head under water in a bathtub.
Instead of calling the police or taking the man out of the tub, the journalists took pictures of the scene and even put Barschel’s head over water to get clearer pictures. They went through Barschel’s hotel room and took pictures of private documents the minister had in his brief case.

The magazine Stern published the exclusive pictures, despite the pleas of Barschel’s widow.

This is probably the worst example of unethical journalism I can think of. Not only did the journalists disrespect the minister’s privacy, they also violated the law by breaking into his hotel room. Furthermore, they made the exclusive story their priority instead of checking if the minister was still alive or calling help.
And the worst of all, I think, they published the pictures although they disregarded the minister’s right to dignity, which is one of the basic and most important rights of the German constitution.
As a consequence of his unethical and inconsiderate behaviour, Sebastian Knauer today still feels haunted by the events of that night and the pictures of Uwe Barschel in his head. In the view interviews the journalists gave after the incident, he said that his colleagues eye him with suspicion and lost their trust in him since the incident.
Unethical journalism, no matter how big the headline, clearly does not pay off every time.

So, as it is with almost anything when it comes to ethical conduct, it is not always easy to say what rights and wrong - this is also true for investigative journalism, undercover reports, using clandestine devices and such.
And although “the public interest” seems to be the magic key in this matter, I think it should not be overstrained. I do not condemn those methods of news gathering in general, but journalists should more often balance if their investigations are really in the public’s interest or rather in the interest of circulation numbers and their own careers.